Field Review: Leica X1 (Day 3)

Now that I’ve had a chance to get my feet wet with the Leica X1, it’s time to put it through its paces and what better way to do that than taking it on vacation. We’ve had a few nice days here up in Boston, but it’s nowhere near beach weather. So, off to Sanibel Island in Florida to visit the wife’s grandmother.

Size

When I travel, I like to travel light. Nothing is worse than carrying around tons of stuff that I’ll most likely never need or use. I was lucky enough to travel to Europe last year on my honeymoon. It was a tough decision, but after weeks of debate I decided to leave my Canon 5D and all of my glass at home. Instead of lugging around the 5D, I opted to only take my Panasonic GF-1 and the 20mm F/1.7 pancake lens. It was a great experience to travel light and I came home with a bunch of awesome images. After my experience with the GF-1, I was hoping the X1 would provide the same joy.

As I’ve stated in the previous posts, the X1 is a great size. It’s small enough to fit in a compact pouch but big enough that it’s comfortable to hold. Being compact means I will take it to places, like going out to dinner or on a quick bike ride, where I probably would have left the 5D behind. I ended up using the same case that I purchased for the GF-1 which I picked up at Staples for about $15. I’ve gone through two other cases with the GF-1 which were much more expensive but I found this cheap little bag works best for me.

 

General Thoughts

I couldn’t wait to actually get to FL to start taking photos, so I started shooting in the airport and on the plane. Yes…I was THAT guy. Luckily, Homeland Security didn’t shoot me or perform a full cavity search. Getting sidetracked, back to the review…

Like I said in Day 2, the X1 is slow at everything it does. Focusing, going through the menus, writing to the card…it’s all S-L-O-W. This is rather disheartening, especially for a camera at this price point. After using it for awhile I got used to the speed (or the lack thereof), but it’s still annoying especially when you know more affordable cameras (like the GF-1) are much faster.

Luckily, the X1 ’s speed concerns did not get in the way too much on this trip but that may have just been due to the location. If you’re not familiar with Sanibel, FL, it’s a small, quiet island off of Ft. Myers. The island is mostly populated by older people that have decided to retire in this tropical paradise. There’s really not a lot of “action” on the island; it’s more of a place to go to decompress. Your daily options are pretty much limited to the beach, golf, bike riding, or visiting the wildlife sanctuary. I’m not saying the choices are bad, I just don’t think this is really the X1‘s bread and butter. The X1 would probably be more at home in a major city or even a small town that has more action in a concentrated area. Because of this, I had to get creative with the X1.

As you can imagine, there is an abundance of wildlife and flowers on this sunny island. The X1 has no problem keeping up with flowers (a joke), but its fixed focal length and slow AF makes tracking animals (especially birds) is nearly impossible. This isn’t necessarily a downfall of the X1, it’s simply something to take into consideration. Because of Sanibel’s climate, there are flowers everywhere! I’m usually not one for photographing flowers but it’s hard not to when you are surrounded by so many different kinds kinds of bright, beautiful flowers. So I switched the X1 into macro mode and got right up close to a flower, half pressed to focus AND…I was too close. Bummer. OK, so I backed up a few inches. Again, too close. Soooo, I backed up like a foot. STILL TOO CLOSE. At this point I was beginning to doubt if Leica understood the point of macro. When I was finally able to obtain focus lock, I was several feet away from the flower. How is that macro shooting? The specs say minimum focus distance is 23.62″, but it sure felt farther than that.

 

Image Quality/Flexibility

With its APS-C sized sensor, I was expecting decent results from the X1 and I was not let down. As I stated in a previous post, the RAW files look a bit flat, but they are very flexible. Take a look at the images below. I was actually trying to black out the foreground so much that it looked more like a silhouette and as you can see, it’s pretty much black. After I imported the image into Lightroom, I wanted to see how much detail and color I could recover from the shadow areas. I was quite surprised with what the X1 actually captured. If you don’t mind spending a few minuets tweaking your RAW images, you will be rewarded for your efforts.

For all of you JPEG shooters, don’t worry, you will be pleased with the results as well. JPEG images come out clean and crisp without looking over sharpened or mucked up due to noise reduction. At the default settings, the colors look boosted (especially greens and blues) when compared to the RAW files. It’s nothing over the top, but there is a noticeable difference. Also, RAW images tend to be slightly overexposed when compared to their JPEG counterparts. You can see the difference in the images shown below:

Leica X1 - Unedited RAW file

Leica X1 - Unedited JPEG

So the image sensor in the X1 seems like it is top quality, but what about the lens? Leica is supposed to be known for their glass, so one would expect the X1 to have top quality optics. While I would say the X1 has good optics, I was slightly disappointed with the results. Color fringing is noticeable in high contrast areas, especially when shot wide open. Also, images are a just a bit soft when shooting the X1 wide open but I would still classify them as very good. Flare is very well controlled. I tried several times to get some sort of flare from the lens, but it simply wasn’t having it. I found the bokeh from the X1 to be very pleasing but I wanted more! I’d love to see at least an F/2 on the X1.

I think my biggest complaint with the X1‘s optics is that the lens is not as fast as its competition. The Fujifilm X100‘s lens is F/2 and M43 users have the amazing Panasonic 20mm F/1.7 which may be one of the best values in photography at the moment. Like most lenses, as you stop down the quality increases but I usually prefer to shoot wide open if the image quality is decent. If Leica ever puts out a successor to the X1, they need to step it up in the lens department. While F/2.8 is faster than most kit lenses, there are several compact cameras (Panasonic LX-5, Olympus XZ-1 & Canon S95) that have faster lenses than the X1. Because the X1‘s lens isn’t very fast and there is no image stabilization, you need to push the ISO when things start to get dark and luckily the X1 performs well at higher ISOs. We will take a closer look at ISO performance in a later post.

 

Observations

If you’re not shooting fast moving objects, then the X1 may be one of the best travel cameras on the market. It’s compact, lightweight and it takes excellent photos for its size. At over 250 images on a single charge, I found battery life to be good (especially for how small it is) and the super quiet shutter is simply awesome. The X1 is very comfortable to wear around your neck with the included leather strap, and it’s very good looking. Several people commented on the camera and how nice it looked. Many people thought it was a film camera.

However, there are a few problems with using the X1 as a travel camera.

The Lens – A fixed focal length lens is not for everyone and it may not be the best choice in all situations. While I prefer to shoot with prime lenses most of the time, Sanibel is not the place for a 35mm equivalent lens as your only option. I missed out on photographing a bunch of wildlife due to the X1‘s limited reach. I’m not knocking the X1 at all because I don’t think this camera was really created for shooting wildlife, I simply wanted to point out that the X1 is not always the perfect travel companion.

The Price – You could take another vacation for the price of the X1. If you travel frequently and you do not have another camera that you want to take with you, then the X1 may be an option for you. Having an APS-C size sensor in a small light package is definitely a nice thing to have but there are also other cheaper options out there that you may want to consider if you are in the market for an X1.

 

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